For those who want to know the complicated stuff


Forgiveness Sunday

The weeks leading up to Pascha (Easter) are known as Great Lent. This period is a process and not just an event in time. The purpose of this process is as a preparation to celebrate Pascha when it arrives.  As part of this process, the Great Lent begins in earnest with Forgiveness Sunday.

The purpose of Forgiveness Sunday is to be reminded that Jesus included in His teaching that forgiving others is a necessary part of drawing close to God. "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your trespasses. Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, looking miserable. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly". (Matthew 6:14-18).

What happens on Forgiveness Sunday is this.  After the dismissal at Vespers or in our case the Sunday Liturgy, the priest stands before the congregation and in turn comes forward, venerate the icon, and then each makes a prostration (bows low enough to touch the floor with a finger as a gesture of humility) before the priest, saying, "Forgive me, a sinner." The priest also makes a prostration before each, saying, "God forgives. Forgive me." The person responds, "God forgives," and receives a blessing from the priest. 

Then it gets logistically interesting, because each person lines up around the church to give and receive forgiveness from each person in the congregation. No one is left out. We each all ask forgiveness of everybody, and everybody seeks our forgiveness of them for every offence that might have happened since the previous year when Forgiveness Sunday took place.

 Orthodoxy and Orthodox Christians accept that we can be indifferent to others, selfish, uninterested in others problems, have little or no concern for their troubles, and this act of reconciliation helps us come face to face with those uncomfortable things about us, with which we usually manage in our consciousness by just being polite and friendly to others instead of doing something practical for others, or by forgetting or ignoring their needs in our prayers.This act of reconciliation, whether we feel another who seeks to be reconciled does so unnecessarily for we haven't felt offended by them over the year, recognises that with the best will in the world a year in a community rarely goes by without doe small, albeit unintended, slight, and sets in motion our intentions and thoughts towards the sacrifice of Pascha whereby we can absorb the full meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection. 


The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Without exception, the lives of everyone alive are marked by important dates whereby things past are remembered. Birthdays are the obvious example, but as a nation we also mark the end of WWI and WWII, when Germany was defeated by allied forces. In England we mark the Queens' Official Birthday, and hold a ceremony to mark the opening of Parliament as well as particular anniversaries like a centenary of a national or international hero.

In just such a spirit, Orthodoxy celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Feast is kept in memory of the final defeat of Iconoclasm and the restoration of the icons to the churches. Sometime between AD 726 and 730, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian began the iconoclast campaign. He ordered the removal of an image of Jesus prominently placed over the Chalke gate, the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople, and its replacement with a cross. Over the years conflict developed between those who wanted to use the images, claiming that they were "icons" to be "venerated", and the purists who claimed they were simply idols. Pope Gregory III called a synod in AD 730 and formally condemned iconoclasm as heretical and excommunicated its promoters. The papal letter never reached Constantinople as the messengers were intercepted and arrested in Sicily by the Byzantines.The Byzantine Emperor Constantine V convened another meeting,the Council of Hieria in AD 754, and the attending 338 bishops assembled concluded, "the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation—namely, the Incarnation of Christ, and contradicted the six holy synods. . . . If anyone shall endeavour to represent the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colours which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil), and does not rather represent their virtues as living images in himself, etc. . . . let him be anathema". This Council claimed to be the legitimate "Seventh Ecumenical Council".

So there we have it, no ikons for 26 years until AD 780 when Constantine VI ascended the throne in Constantinople. But being a minor state affairs were managed by his mother Empress Irene. She decided that an ecumenical council needed to be held to address the issue of iconoclasm and directed this request to Pope Adrian I (AD 772–795) in Rome. Adrian announced his agreement and called the convention on 1 August AD 786 in the presence of the Emperor and Empress. The initial proceedings were interrupted by the violent entry of iconoclast soldiers faithful to the memory of the prior Emperor Constantine V unhappy that this matter was being raised again, with possibly a different outcome. This caused the council to be adjourned until a reliable army could be assembled to protect any proceedings. The council was reassembled at Nicaea 24 September AD 787. During those proceedings the following was adopted:

"... we declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another's message. 

... we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects"

Despite that decree, disagreement continued with iconoclastic practices and beliefs. After the death of the last Iconoclast emperor, Theophilos, his young son Michael III, with his mother the regent Theodora, and Patriarch Methodios, summoned the Synod of Constantinople in AD 842 to bring peace to the Church. At the end of the first session, all made a triumphal procession from the Church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophia, restoring the icons to the church. This occurred on 19 February, 842 (which that year was the first Sunday of Lent). The Synod decreed that a perpetual feast on the anniversary of that day should be observed each year on the First Sunday of Great Lent, and named the day, "the Sunday of Orthodoxy" (ἡ Κυριακὴ τῆς Ὀρθοδοξίας), and continues to be remembered by Orthodox Christians today. 

After the Hours are recited and before the Liturgy begins, ikons are processed by the congregation around the church while the choir sings. Many people bring their own ikons from home, and those who don't remove one from the walls of the church to join in the occasion.



The word Akathist really means "Standing", from ἀ-, a-, "without, not" and κάθισις, káthisis, "sitting".  In an Akathist the whole congregation is expected to stand (with the exception for those physically unable to stand). Generally speaking, Akathist is mandatory for the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and the Gospel, but in its wider context an Akathist is a prayer sung or said for a specific purpose in commemoration of a particular saint or one of the Trinity.

The structure of an Akathist follows a recognisable form. The hymn itself is divided into thirteen parts, each of which is composed of a kontakion and an oikos (Greek: οίκος, house, possibly derived from Syriac terminology).  The term kontakion  derives from the Greek word κόνταξ, kontax, meaning pole, specifically the pole around which a scroll is wound. The term describes the way in which the words on a scroll unfurl as it is read and in the context of a church service describes how the words of the particular kontakion unfurl within a service to underpin the intentions and purposes of the service.

The oikos is a specially constructed stanza, in honour of a particular feast, which is sung, together with the kontakion develops the ideas expressed in the kontakion and, as a rule, concludes with the same words as the kontakion. Like the kontakion, it is a condensed form of a hymn.  The Greek word means `house’, signifying that the Oikos contained all the essentials of a household.  Similarly, the Oikos of the church service was a brief summary of the saint or feast day being celebrated. The kontakion usually ends with the exclamation: Alleluia, which is repeated by a choir in full settings or chanted by the reader in simple settings. Within the latter part of the oikos comes an anaphoric entreaty, such as Come or Rejoice.

Most frequently, however, the use of the term Akathist has come to refer to a hymn that seeks the prayers of Mary, and to magnify her position of honour as perceived by many.


Liturgy of The Presanctified Gifts

Because Great Lent is a season of repentance, fasting, and intensified prayer, Orthodoxy regards as especially desirable that people attend church and take the eucharist more frequently than they would do normally. However, the Divine Liturgy has a festal character not in keeping with the season, and as such the Presanctified Liturgy is celebrated instead, with the usual Divine Liturgy only performed on Saturdays and Sundays. 

The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is served on Wednesday and Friday evenings, although some churches may celebrate it only on one of these days. It is a service that takes place at the liturgical end of the day, and what happens is this.

During the psalms of Vespers, the presanctified gifts are prepared for communion. They are transferred from the altar table where they have been reserved since the Divine Liturgy, and are placed on the table of oblation. After the evening hymn, Old Testamental scriptures are read, between which the celebrant blesses the kneeling congregation with a lighted candle and the words: “The Light of Christ illumines all,”. After the readings, the evening Psalm 141 is solemnly sung once again with the offering of incense. Then, after the litanies of intercession and those after which the catechumens were dismissed in former days, the presanctified eucharistic gifts are brought to the altar. Then the congregation are called to take the eucharist.


The Great Canon of St Anthony of Crete

During Great Lent, Christians of all denominations have the opportunity to use this time as a preparation, a process, for the refreshment, the Simcha, of Pascha (Easter).  Some will use this time to attend a bible study, some will attend the Stations of the Cross, others might use a rosary, follow a part of scripture as it unfolds or read an academic text to deepen their understanding. many will do nothing at all. One of the opportunities presented to Orthodox Christians is to attend a service known as The Great Canon of St Anthony of Crete.The Great Canon was written by St. Andrew of Crete, a bishop who was initially a monk in Jerusalem (refer to our Gallery pages for more information about St Anthony).

This complex poem is actually a chanted hymn, and was written in the early 700′s, and is called “Great” for two reasons: it is incredibly long (about 250 verses), and it is majestic. It is a liturgical poem consisting of nine parts, and is an internal dialogue between St Anthony and his soul. The ongoing theme is an urgent exhortation to change one’s life and St Andrew always  mentions his own sinfulness placed in juxtaposition to God’s mercy, and uses literally hundreds of references to good and bad examples from the OT and NT to “convince himself” to repent. Attending the Great Canon helps us see how in Israel followers of Jesus understood the scriptures and repentance.

In our modern times, we have a different, maybe even distorted, sense of what is meant by sin, and The Great Canon focuses our attention back onto the subject.  It is written primarily in the first person, and goes chronologically through the entire Old and New Testaments drawing examples (both negative and positive) which it correlates to the need of the sinful soul for repentance return to God, the fundamental message of both John Baptist and Jesus, not to mention most of the prophets of the Old Testament.  

What then ought someone expect from attending The Great Canon?  To those who are paying attention, it allows reflection so we can give thought to how we should think about ourselves. When our time comes for confession, what should we bring to that event? What ought we say? What have we done, or not done, that in some way creates a divide between ourselves and those around us, the narrower and the wider society, and God?  What has to happen for us to want to change? To live a life that will bring us closer to God, we have to really want to take steps that will bring that about, and to realise that with every passing day without doing something about coming to God, we are closer to the final event that precludes us being active about making a difference in our lives and that of others. Finally, those attending The Great Canon should leave being in a better state for being able to pray and talk honestly with God.


St Mary of Egypt

St Mary of Egypt was a woman who had the most prodigious of appetites for sex, and during Great Lent there is an opportunity for Orthodox Christians to listen to an account of her life and how she turned her life around.  The purpose of such an occasion is to discover what repentance could be for us from someone who had much to repent.

The service within the context of Great Lent, is actually three accounts.  Her own account, the account of the priest who discovered her hiding in the desert, and a joint account. In brief, this is what we hear.

At the age of 12, Mary ran away from home and settled in Alexandria, where she made a living by begging and spinning flax.  From time to time she took money in return for sex, but as often as not she had as much sex as she could handle and didn't charge, enjoying it as much as she evidently did.  We don't know enough to know if she was a nymphomaniac, but the accounts that describe he appetites might well match such a description.

When she was 29 she travelled to Jerusalem to see what a pilgrimage looked like, and with half an eye on picking up some men for some spare sex on the way. She paid for her passage by taking money for her fun, but when trying to follow pilgrims through through some church doors, she described that at the door of the church as she was about to step over the threshold, she was driven back "by some kind of force".  Mary describes how she perceived it was all the immorality of her life held her back from entering church, and she responded to this experience by asking forgiveness, at which point, what was preventing here entry lifted away and she went in. Mary decided to leave her old life behind and went travelling into the desert, and at some point, was baptised in the Jordan, and settled down to a life of solitude and prayer. It was only after a period of 48 years later, when she was an old woman, that a priest sought by the name of Zosimas found her, and this forms the second part of her life story.

Zosimas was a priest and a monk, and having entered the religious life as a boy, his life experience couldn't have been more different from Mary. Yet, at the age of 53, he hit a crisis in his life. He became tormented by the thought that he had attained perfection in life and there was nothing new for him to learn, and this thought left him in  a miserable state. He believed he was guided to the desert beyond Jordan so he could discover what other ways to God may be found. He left the monastery expecting to find a particularly holy monk, one closer to God than he believed himself to be, from whom he could discover great things. It took him 20 days before he came across Mary and at first he really didn't like what he saw.  Being a solitary she saw no need to wear clothes, and so she stood, old, naked, skin wrinkled dried and blackened by the sun, anorexically undernourished through fasting with white short cropped hair that she had kept hacked short herself.

It wasn't clear at first who was most scared of whom. Zosimas hadn't seen much of women before never mind an old emaciated naked one, and certainly Mary felt threatened enough to run away from this man. But Zosimas felt that this was the one to whom he had been guided, and when they eventually found themselves talking Zosimas realised that she had a holy presence and personal power greater than anything he had previously encountered. 

And so we come to the third story: The Story of Mary and Zosimas together. From the moment they met, their lives were found to be reversed. Mary, the sinful woman, became teacher and source of sanctity, whereby Zosimas, the venerable priest and monk, became disciple and suppliant. As well as having a great understanding of the mystery of God, she wasn't shy about disclosing the details of her seedy life before she found God. She explained how it was that she had been able to survive the harsh conditions of desert life, the deprivations not only of material comforts, but the comforts of society, which she had given up in repentance for her former way of life. Mary really had no comprehension of how close to God she had become, nor how almost tangible this closeness could be experienced by someone else sitting beside her.

Eventually she asked Zosimas for a favour. She asked him to go back to the monastery and return on Holy Thursday the following year and bring her the Eucharist, without telling anyone about her. Zosimas reluctantly agreed, for he had spent enough time with her to feel he had become her disciple. He felt renewed by her company and her account of her life, and going back to the monastery left him fearful of feeling deflated again, but a year passed by and he returned, as requested, with the Eucharist. Mary received them and said the familiar words,'Lord now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word: for my eyes have seen your salvation', whereupon Zosimas was sent away again for another year with the instruction to return, again with the Eucharist, the following Holy Thursday.

But when the time came and Zosimas returned, he found her dead, with a letter to him written in the sand beside her body. From this he learned that she had died within an hour of receiving the sacrament the previous year. He learned, also, for the first time her name, for she signed herself "Mary the sinner." Zosimas buried her, there in the desert, then he went back to the monastery to let people know about her and how she had touched his life.

Surrounding this story, for we don't really know if either of these people actually lived or if it is a heroic poetic tale, is a wealth of other details which may or may not be credible or true, but these are the bare bones of her life, and during Great Lent Orthodox Christians have the opportunity to dwell on someone who lived a wholly immoral life, someone who suddenly decided they wanted to know God, and who spent her remaining years in sorrow and repentance for all the wrong she had done in life. To some, there is also an encouragement that here was a woman who found a closeness with God in a barren desert, that a monk and priest who had spent his whole life in a monastery with all the attendant privileges that having ready access to services and liturgy, regular meals and shelter could only dream of finding. 

The story of Mary in the desert show us, that ordinary Christians living ordinary lives, lives not spent in cloisters, can be as close to God as much as we would want. We only have to want it and long for it enough, and then be prepared to do something about it.


Orthodoxy on death and funerals

There are some things in Orthodoxy with which we take a fairly flexible line, and then there are others where the official line is more rigid. The official line on cremation, for example, is that it is forbidden. However, there are situations in which - at least in our own jurisdiction - cremation is tolerated, although the burial (rather than scattering) of the ashes is strongly encouraged.  

The funeral service is based upon Matins, which is a service of praise and light, the mourners stand holding lit candles as a symbol of the resurrection.  The basic idea of the service is that we are indeed faced with death, but death does not frighten us any more when we see it through the resurrection of Christ.

At the same time, the service gives a sense of the ambiguity of death, the two sides to it.  Death cannot be accepted, it is a monstrosity: we have been created in order to live, and yet in a world which human sin has made monstrous, death is the only way out.  If our world were fixed unchangeable and eternal, it would be hell;  death is the only thing that allows the earth, together with suffering and sin, to escape from this hell.

Death is death with all its tragic ugliness and monstrosity, and yet death ultimately is the only thing that gives us hope.  On the one hand we long to live;  on the other hand, if we long sufficiently to live we long to die because in this limited world it is impossible to live fully.  When we have reached a certain measure of life - independent of time - we must shed this limited life to enter into unlimited life.

The Orthodox burial service is strikingly centred around the open coffin, because the person is still considered in his entirety as body and soul, both being the concern of the Church.  The body has been prepared for burial;  the body is not a piece of outworn clothing, which has been cast off for the soul to be free.  A body is much more than this for a Christian;  There is nothing that happens to the soul in which the body does not take part.

A body without a soul is a corpse and not our concern, and a soul without a body does not yet enjoy the bliss which the whole human being is called to enjoy at the end of time when the glory of God shines through soul and body.  Thus the dead body is an object of care on the part of the Church, even when it is the body of a sinner;  and all the attention we pay to it when alive is nothing to the veneration shown it at the burial service". (1966).

It is a responsible thing for everyone, whether or not they have a faith, to share thoughts about dying and death with those who are immediate and close so there is no doubt come the day when words can no longer be shared.  Talk about death.  Talk about dying.  If there is something which you would like, or not like, about being remembered then now is the time to say it.  Remember at all times, that funerals are for the living more than they are for the dead.

Opinions vary widely regarding organ donation. Some hold that it is forbidden, others that there is nothing in Orthodoxy that prohibits organ donation after death. Jesus spoke about laying down ones life for one's friends, which implies that organ donation is seen favourably by God. Each must make up their own mind. Embalming on the other hand is seen as acceptable.

The outline of the funeral service goes like this; 

  • The body of the dead person, having been placed in a coffin, is carried, feet first, into the church for the burial service and set in the center of the church facing the altar.
  • The coffin is opened and an icon of Christ or the patron Saint is placed in the hands of the departed.
  • A wreath (with the Trisagion printed on it) may be placed on the forehead of the departed.
  • The hand-cross may be placed in the coffin near the head of the departed.
  • At the head of the coffin may be placed a bowl of koliva, a dish of boiled wheat with honey, with a lit candle on top, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life and the sweetness of Heaven.
  • Candles are distributed to the worshippers who, receiving the light from the priest, hold them lit throughout the service until near the end.
  • After the Dismissal and "Memory Eternal," friends come to say a last good-bye to the departed. They may kiss the hand-cross which is set on the side of the coffin or the icon placed in the hands of the departed. The closest relatives should be given an opportunity to spend several minutes with the departed alone. Then the coffin is closed and carried out from the church to the hearse. The choir sings the Trisagion, and the bells are rung slowly.
  • The funeral cortege proceeds to the cemetery where a short grave-side service of entombment is sung by the priest.

Strict observance of mourning requires that the mourning period for Eastern Orthodox Christians lasts for forty days. Within those forty days, the third day, the ninth day, and the fortieth day all have special significance. After forty days, memorials are celebrated at three months, six months, nine months, one year, and on the anniversary of the death for at least seven years. For close relatives, the mourning period may last for one year, during which widows and widowers often wear only black clothing and will recite Panikhidas regularly. Close relatives may also stay home from work for one week and avoid social gatherings for two months.  This, however, is the most strict interpretation of Orthodoxy and is observed within cultural norms of some Orthodox societies. In others where this does not apply, or where impractical, close relatives may well observe mourning according to their own cultural norms.


Orthodoxy and homosexual marriage.

Orthodoxy recognises that for whatever reason, there are people who are attracted to those of their own sex, and while this is an incontrovertible fact of life, it nevertheless doesn't mean that such people are not loved by God in the same way as He loves everyone else. God's love extends to everyone. There is a case to be made that puts homosexuality on the same plain as having a disability. Whilst homosexuals can't help being homosexual, neither can they be seen in the same light as heterosexuals who are attracted to people of the opposite sex. When it comes to marriage, just because society, or parts of society, have decided to redefine their view of what marriage is, doesn't make homosexual marriage the same as marriage in the conventional sense.

To explain using an analogy, margarine, to a greater or lesser extent, looks like butter, is manufactured to taste like butter, is used the way butter is used, but even if people wanted to call it butter it will never, in a million years, be butter. Homosexuals may think that by calling their union a marriage are using the word marriage in the same way. It might look like marriage, it might have similar characteristics, but it will never be marriage.

There will never be a homosexual marriage in an Orthodox church. 

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